Beware of the identity snatchers

In the past year, five U students have had their identities stolen and 10 others have had their personal information stolen from their computers, and those figures could be rising fast, campus safety officials say.

“I wouldn’t call it a big problem yet, but I think it’s probably going to increase, and the cases are terribly difficult to investigate because they can be very, very labor intensive and the trail is usually cold by the time we get to them,” U Police Detective Mike McPharlin said.

His office has investigated five identity-theft cases since April 2003, ranging from the use of personal information for obtaining drugs to setting up a cell phone account in somebody else’s name.

But the problem is worse in residence halls, where students using peer-to-peer file-sharing programs are opening themselves up for victimization, said Institutional Security Office Director Steve Scott.

Scott said 80 percent of peer-to-peer software programs like KaZaA include spyware technology that could allow outsiders to access personal computers.

“The danger is that you’re launching an application that lets people take over your computer,” he said.

But students conducting personal business in one of the campus’s computer labs shouldn’t worry about their information falling to the wrong hands, since the databases are dumped and refreshed every night.

“I feel pretty good about those. Those are pretty clean,” Scott said.

But no amount of protection will convince sociology junior Kyle Brunner to access personal information online.

“I don’t trust the whole Internet system. I figure a five-minute line is better than anything that could happen from using my information online,” he said.

The fastest-growing crime in the country has been on the U’s radar screen since 1997, when scores of social security numbers were stolen after a student breached a campus security network.

Among those numbers lost was that of Associate Vice President of Student Affairs Kay Harward.

“You don’t know what to think of it when it first happens,” he said.

After the incident, U officials began phasing out the use of social security numbers as student ID numbers and in 1999, every student was assigned his or her own internal tracking number to increase privacy protection.

But the threat of identity theft remains as more students pay their tuition online using credit cards, or toss away credit applications without a second thought.

“Using your credit card anywhere is a risk people endure,” Harward said.

Last year, the Federal Trade Commission logged 516,740 consumer complaints. Of those, 214,905-or 42 percent-were related to identity theft.

Sheila Gordon, director of victim services at the Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego, Calif., said it’s important for students to take precautions in securing and protecting their vital information.

“You have to be aware who you’re giving your information to. Where there’s a means there’s a way, and people will do whatever they need to do to get that information,” she said.

Numbers in Utah are spiking as well. In 1996, 32 cases of identity theft were reported to the state’s Office of the Attorney General. By 2002, that number skyrocketed to 527, Scott said.

“This is something that’s going to grow exponentially and it’s absolutely going to remain a threat,” he said.

U administrators aren’t the only ones taking notice of the growing problem.

Identity theft was front and center this past legislative session, after Sen. Carlene Walker, R-Salt Lake City, sponsored Senate Bill 16, which was passed into law.

The measure would make the crime a minimum third-degree felony and would give prosecutors a choice of venues from which to try cases.

That, said Gordon, could be the key to nailing down identity-theft convictions.

“I think the problem ahead is jurisdiction. Many state and federal agencies aren’t on the same page with each other, and a lot of victims feel a second victimizing from federal agencies,” she said.

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